Applying To College

College Essay Writing and Interview Skills


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How to Write Common Application Essay 4: Describe a Problem You’ve Solved or Would Like to Solve

How To Write 2017 Common App Essay 4 Describe a problem you've solved or would like to solveAre you a budding scientist with research ideas? Do you have an idea for a product that solves a problem? Have you figured out a way to make everyday life a little easier?

Then Common Application essay prompt #4 may be for you.

This is the fourth of my seven-part series on how to write the Common Application essay prompts.

You’ll learn about the question, the keywords, and the dos and don’ts of answering, I’ll also give you successful Common Application essay topic examples.

Ready for number 4? Let’s do it!

Common Application Essay Prompt #4:

Describe a problem you’ve solved or a problem you’d like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma—anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.

Is this Prompt for You? Look at the Keywords:

how to write 2013 common app essay

“Problem you’ve solved or would like to solve”“Personal importance”“No matter the scale”

Do the Keywords Apply to You?

Answer yes IF:

  • You’ve identified a problem with meaning and importance to you.
  • You’ve actively worked on a solution OR have an idea about what steps you’d take to work toward a solution.

What Can Colleges Learn About You From This Question?

  • An idea or experience you truly value
  • Your problem-solving skills
  • Your critical thinking skills
  • The course you plot when you have a goal
    how to write 2013 common app essay

    Pitfalls to Avoid: 

  • Answer the Entire Question. The question has three parts: (1) Describe a problem; (2) Explain its significance to you; (3) Identify a solution and either how to get there or how to begin to get there. You must answer all three parts.
  • The Problem Isn’t Meaningful Enough to You. You could write about lobbying for longer lunch periods at school, but so what? Don’t be superficial. Your topic tells the colleges who you are and what you care about. 
  • Vague or Generic essays. The prompt says you can write about anything “no matter the scale.” But broad topics still need to be of personal significance, with the emphasis on personal. Sure, you can write about world peace—but can you demonstrate your passion and connection? Be specific about how a topic has touched you or meant something to you—and put your personality squarely on the page.

  • Don’t Skimp on the Solution. I’ve seen students devote most of their essays to the problem and only a couple of sentences to achieving a solution. Don’t skimp on this section—you’re showing colleges what kind of critical thinker and problem solver you’ll be at college—show them you’ll be a darn good one.

How to write Common Application essay describe a problem you've solved or would like to solveHot Tips: You don’t need to fly solo. Problems can be complex and so can their solutions. So when you’re thinking about your solution, you don’t need to be the only one involved. You may require a team or teams of people with specific skills to achieve your goal.

You don’t need the perfect answer. The prompt gives you the chance to explain the steps you’d take to identify a solution. As long as you discuss the process—the way you’d get to a solution—that’s okay, even if you’re not quite sure what the exact solution might be.

Examples of Successful Essay Topics

Brain Farts

Kenny was driving home and missed the turn down his street. He was stumped. He couldn’t figure out why he’d missed doing something he had done a hundred times. Kenny wanted to know what caused his “brain fart,” so he found the scientific name (maladaptive change) and developed a two-part experiment to identify and predict when these changes would occur. Kenny hopes to conduct his experiment when he gets to college. With an interesting and personal essay topic, Kenny was able to demonstrate his scientific mind and problem-solving skills.

Water Pollution Detective

Last summer, during a school research project, Liz helped identify the source of pollution flowing into a local river. Helping her community meant a lot to her, and she wanted to do more. So now Liz plans to contact local authorities and work with them to set up a better monitoring system to prevent future spills. She hasn’t implemented the solution yet, but can explain the steps she’d take.

Saving the Crops

Lily, a student from China, witnessed locusts destroy her entire community’s harvest. Lily reasoned that if scientists could understand more about insect life cycles, they might be able to save crops and even combat hunger. To work on the problem, she plans to set up a research project in college. The project will use mathematical applications to more accurately predict the insects’ life cycle. Lily dreamed big, but at the same time her story was specific: She had a personal connection and a passion for solving a large-scale problem.

Interested in Common App essay #4? Include your decision-making process. Explain how you came up with (or would come up with) a possible solution (Research? Thought? Talking to people?). Make sure you explain why this topic is meaningful to you. And write a great problem-solving essay.

Next time: How to Write Common App prompt #5.

Read the entire series:
How to Write Common App Prompt #1: Background, Talent, Identity, or Interest
How to Write Common App Prompt #2: The Lessons We Take From Obstacles
How to Write Common App Prompt #3: Challenged a Belief or Idea
How to Write Common App Prompt #4: A Problem You’ve Solved or Would Like to Solve
How to Write Common App Prompt #5: An Accomplishment, Event, or Realization
Coming Soon:
How to Write Common App Prompt #6: Topic, Idea or Concept that Makes You Lose Track of Time
How to Write Common App Prompt #7: Topic of Your Choice

Related links:
Huffington Post: The Common App Prompts Are Changing
The Common Application Announces 2017-2018 Essay Prompts

For the entire list of 2017 Common Application essay prompts click here.
If you’re not familiar with the Common Application, click here for more info.

sharon-epstein-college-essay-writing-and-interview-skills


Sharon Epstein is owner of First Impressions College Consulting in Redding, Connecticut. She is a Writers Guild Award-winner and two-time Emmy Award nominee. First Impressions College Consulting teaches students how to master interview skills, write killer resumes, and transform their goals, dreams and experiences into memorable college application essays. Our tutors are award-winning writers and published authors who work with students everywhere: in-person, by phone, video and email. Visit our website for more info. Connect on Google+, Pinterest and Twitter.



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How to Write 2017 Common Application Essay 3: A Time When You Questioned or Challenged a Belief or Idea

How To Write 2017 Common App Essay 3 Questioned or Challenged a Belief or Idea Hooray! You’re applying to college!

How do you choose which Common Application essay to write?

This 7-part series will help you figure out which 2017 Common Application question is right for you. You’ll learn what colleges look for, what pitfalls to avoid, and read examples of successful essay topics.

For the entire list of 2017 Common Application essay prompts click here.

Ready for number 3? Let’s do it!

Common Application Essay Prompt #3:

Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?

Is This Prompt for You?  Look at the Keywords:

how to write 2013 common app essay

“Questioned or challenged”…”Belief or idea”…”Prompted your thinking”

Why Should You Consider This Topic?

  • This is a great essay to show off your critical thinking skills. That’s why it says “what prompted your thinking”—they want to get a good peek inside your head and see how your wheels turn.

Do the Keywords Apply to You?

  • A “belief or idea” can mean many things, including something you learned or were taught, or an opinion you or someone else holds. But it can also be bigger than that—take a look at the essay example below where a student challenges the existence of an entire school event.

how to write 2013 common app essay

Pitfalls to Avoid

  • This question has THREE parts—make sure you answer ALL of them: The event, what prompted your thinking, and the outcome.
  • Thoughts rarely arrive fully formed! Thinking is a process. It comes in stages. It’s important to show that process. For instance, if I have a pebble in my shoe, first I might think that something’s bothering me, then I want to see what it is, then I decide to take it out of my shoe. This is a simple example, but what if I wrote, “I had a pebble in my shoe and I took it out.” No! You actually thought about it before you acted. It’s like math class when the teacher makes you show your work—that’s what I mean when I say show the process of how you came to challenge your belief or idea.
  • Don’t forget to reflect on your decision. Were you satisfied with the outcome? Did you learn something from this experience? Would you do it again? Reflection demonstrates insight and maturity.
  • Caution: You never want to offend your reader. Remember that a belief or idea you disagree with could be one that your reader accepts, so always watch your tone and be respectful when needed.

Not Sure this Question Relates to You?
Here are 3 ways you might answer this question:

  • Were you told by an adult that you wouldn’t be successful in an activity, but you chose to pursue it anyway?
  • Did you challenge what a group of friends told you to do because you thought they were wrong?
  • Did you see someone being treated unfairly (perhaps even yourself) and attempt to rectify it?

What Other Kinds of Beliefs or Ideas Can You Consider?

  • It can be a belief or idea held by others (including friends, schoolmates and family).
  • It can be a belief or idea you’ve been taught (including your attitude or action toward others, or how something should or shouldn’t be done).
  • It can also be your own belief—something that’s unique to you. What if you thought your sister came from Mars? (Okay, that’s silly.) But sometimes we have our own ideas: Consider the student who thinks being loudest is the best way to gain attention, or the girl who thinks she’s happiest being alone. What if the student realized he’d rather have friends than negative attention, or the girl pushed herself out of her comfort zone to find out she enjoyed being a leader at school? Think about what you believed when you were younger, and if your ideas changed, why. If your experience is meaningful and says positive things about you (and answers the question), this prompt could be for you.

Which brings me to:

Should you write about religion? You can. I’ve had students who’ve written about different aspects of their spiritual journey, whether it was trying to conform to their parents’ religion or searching for their own truth. But remember the caution: You don’t want to offend your reader. So along with topic choice, consider the tone of your writing. For instance, it’s a lot different to say you felt a need to find your own spiritual path than to say you hated a specific religion and couldn’t wait to get out of there.

Bottom line: If you feel it could impact your admission, choose a different topic.

Hot Tip from College Admissions Officers: Some admissions officers tell me that many essays about spiritual journeys are starting to sound very similar to them. So if you want to write about your spiritual journey, find an original approach that makes your essay stands out. If it starts to feel generic, dig deeper into who you are and how this topic reflects your values, your ability to problem solve, or your goals. If you’re not sure it will stand out, switch topics.

Example of a Successful Essay Topic:

“Standing up for Autism”

An autistic student’s school held an annual event that supported autism. The event also supported a prominent charity devoted to autism. But the student had become aware that many people in the autistic community were upset with this charity. They felt it didn’t recognize the full value or contributions of the autistic community, and in fact had made some very negative statements. After researching the charity the student agreed, and decided he wanted the school to end its support of the charity. But he knew he’d have to handle it carefully and respectfully. So he collected evidence and videos and presented them to his vice principal. Then he wrote a formal letter to the Board of Education. After discussing the student’s material, the Board agreed that future events wouldn’t include the charity. The student was both surprised and delighted. In his essay he wrote that he learned that if he communicated his views in a clear and mature way, people in authority would respectfully listen to him and consider his viewpoint. In this case he was successful, and he felt he made a positive difference.

Why This Topic Succeeds

  • All the keywords are addressed. The student described the situation, discussed his thought process, and told the outcome.
  • He demonstrated critical thinking skills. He researched the charity to come to his own decision and then decided on the correct way to approach the school.
  • He included a learning experience. He learned that if he presented his views in a clear and respectful way that adults in authority would listen. He saw how he could make a positive change.
  • He gave colleges excellent reasons to admit him: He took on a leadership role, communicated well with adults, and worked to create change. Even if he hadn’t been successful these qualities would stand out.

Reasons Essay Prompt #3 Can Work for You: 

  • You can communicate your level of maturity.
  • You can highlight your critical thinking skills.
  • You can demonstrate that you’re open-minded and have respect for the beliefs and ideas of others.
  • You can show that your choices or ideas had an impact on yourself or others.

Remember: For your essay to be successful, show the schools some of your best qualities, and make sure they come away feeling that they’ve learned something interesting about what makes you, you.

For more information on the Common Application visit their website. They also have a very helpful Facebook page.

Next time: How to Write Common App prompt #4.

Read the entire series:
How to Write Common App Prompt #1: Background, Talent, Identity, or Interest
How to Write Common App Prompt #2: The Lessons We Take From Obstacles
How to Write Common App Prompt #3: Challenged a Belief or Idea
How to Write Common App Prompt #4: A Problem You’ve Solved or Would Like to Solve|
How to Write Common App Prompt #5: An Accomplishment, Event, or Realization
Coming Soon:
How to Write Common App Prompt #6: Topic, Idea or Concept that Makes You Lose Track of Time
How to Write Common App Prompt #7: Topic of Your Choice

Related links:
Huffington Post: The Common App Prompts Are Changing
The Common Application Announces 2017-2018 Essay Prompts

For the entire list of 2017 Common Application essay prompts click here.
If you’re not familiar with the Common Application, click here for more info.

sharon-epstein-college-essay-writing-and-interview-skills


Sharon Epstein is owner of First Impressions College Consulting in Redding, Connecticut. She is a Writers Guild Award-winner and two-time Emmy Award nominee. First Impressions College Consulting teaches students how to master interview skills, write killer resumes, and transform their goals, dreams and experiences into memorable college application essays. Our tutors are award-winning writers and published authors who work with students everywhere: in-person, by phone, video and email. Visit our website for more info. Connect on Google+, Pinterest and Twitter.

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How to Write 2017 Common Application Essay 2: The Lessons We Take From Obstacles

How To Write 2017 Common App Essay 2 lessons we take from obstaclesHave you ever faced an obstacle and had to figure out how to get through it? Did you succeed—or maybe not?

Have you ever failed at something? I mean really tanked.

Did you learn from your experience?

Then Common Application Essay prompt #2 may be for you.

This is the second in my series on how to write the 2017 Common Application essay prompts.  In this post, I teach you what you need to know to write Common Application Essay prompt #2. We’ll discuss the question, the keywords, the pitfalls to avoid, and I’ll give you a successful essay topic example.

Are you ready for Common Application Prompt #2? Here we go…

Common Application Essay Prompt #2:

The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?

Is This Prompt for You?  Look at the Keywords:

how to write 2013 common app essay

“Obstacles”…”Lessons”…”Challenge”…”Setback”…
“Failure”
“Affect you“...”Learn”

Why Should You Consider This Topic?

Colleges like character building experiences. Overcoming a challenge requires determination and perseverance, which are excellent character traits. This is the essay that checks that box—that shows the schools how you act, think, and make decisions when you’re up against it, and what you’ve learned when life hasn’t gone so well.

Failure Isn’t the Only Option!

This question used to only be about failure. But that was a problem—some students weren’t sure if their experiences qualified as true “failures.” Others tried to create failures out of experiences that weren’t. It got messy.

This is a much better question. Now, if your experience required grit or courage to handle but doesn’t qualify as a failure, you can write about it.

Do the Keywords Apply to You?

Answer yes IF

  • You tried something and failed, took a risk that didn’t pay off, made a decision that turned out to be faulty, achieved something you weren’t sure you could do, figured out a way to succeed without enough resources, persevered in the face of difficult circumstances.
  • AND you learned from your experience.
  • AND you can reflect on how it affected you.

how to write 2013 common app essay

Pitfalls to Avoid:

  • This question has three parts—make sure you answer ALL of them: Your experience, how it affected you, and what positive lessons you learned.
  • Are you writing about a failure? Don’t wallow in it. This essay isn’t really about what happened—it’s about the character building experience that came out of it. So mention the failure and move on.
  • Academic challenges often don’t make the best essays. Many students end up with a bad grade or marking period, but this is rarely the place to write about it. The risk is that your essay will sound like a lot of other essays. (“I worked hard and learned that I could persevere.”) Remember: Always look for an original approach to your essay—fully explore why this topic is meaningful to you and show how you pushed through this challenge. If your gut says it’s a common topic, sounds boring, or doesn’t differentiate you from other applicants, then choose another topic. If you need to explain a bad grade or marking period, think about using the additional information section of your application instead.

Successful Essay Topic Example:

“Snowbound Night”

When he was 15, Andrew started a snowplow business using his ATV. But the ATV couldn’t plow deep snow, and one night, after eight inches of snow fell, the ATV got stuck in his driveway. Andrew knew his customers were counting on him, so he worked all night to shovel out the ATV.  After that difficult and embarrassing experience, Andrew realized he needed to upgrade his equipment so he could serve his customers better. Eventually, Andrew traded his ATV for a truck with a plow, which in turn made his business more successful. One thing that he learned from this experience was that he wanted to pursue a business career.

Why this Topic Succeeds:

•    All the keywords are addressed. Andrew told his story, examined how his failure affected him, and then wrote about the positive lessons he learned.
•    It also showed that he had good character. He didn’t leave his customers hanging.

how to write 2013 Common Application essay

Are You Uncomfortable Discussing Failure?

how to write Common Application how to write essay personal statementDON’T BE.  Remember, colleges look for character-building stories and problem solving skills.

In fact, Christine Hamilton, who is Director of Undergraduate Admissions at Sacred Heart University, tells me she sees a lot of failure essays and that’s okay with her. She learns a lot about the character of incoming students by hearing how they’ve coped with failure.

Seeing How You’ve Weathered Adversity Can Give Schools a Good Reason to Want to Accept You.

CAUTION: Never write about failures that include very risky behavior or anything illegal (like hanging off a cliff or being caught drinking and driving). 

Next time: How to write Common Application essay prompt #3.

Read the entire series:
How to Write Common App Prompt #1: Background, Talent, Identity, or Interest
How to Write Common App Prompt #2: The Lessons We Take From Obstacles
How to Write Common App Prompt #3: Challenged a Belief or Idea
How to Write Common App Prompt #4: A Problem You’ve Solved or Would Like to Solve
How to Write Common App Prompt #5: An Accomplishment, Event, or Realization
How to Write Common App Prompt #6: Topic, Idea or Concept that Makes You Lose Track of Time
How to Write Common App Prompt #7: Topic of Your Choice

Related links:
Huffington Post: The Common App Prompts Are Changing
The Common Application Announces 2017-2018 Essay Prompts

For the entire list of 2017 Common Application essay prompts click here.
If you’re not familiar with the Common Application, click here for more info.

sharon-epstein-college-essay-writing-and-interview-skills


Sharon Epstein is owner of First Impressions College Consulting in Redding, Connecticut. She is a Writers Guild Award-winner and two-time Emmy Award nominee. First Impressions College Consulting teaches students how to master interview skills, write killer resumes, and transform their goals, dreams and experiences into memorable college application essays. Our tutors are award-winning writers and published authors who work with students everywhere: in-person, by phone, video and email. Visit our website for more info. Connect on Google+, Pinterest and Twitter.


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How to Write 2017 Common Application Essay 1: Background, Identity, Interest or Talent

How To Write 2017 Common App Essay 1Do you know how to write your best Common Application essay?

Do you know which Common App essay prompt is right for you? Or even how to choose?

Some schools read tens of thousands of essays a year. So it’s important for your college essay to stand out.

In this series of posts, I’ll give you tips on how your Common Application essay can stand out.

You’ll learn:

  • What schools look for in Common Application essay answers
  • How to choose an essay prompt
  • How to avoid college essay pitfalls

I’ll give you essay examples, too.

First — let’s start with Common Application Essay basics:

  • The 2017 Common Application has seven prompts (up from five last year). You answer one of them.
  • The Common App essay must be between 250-650 words.
  • You can’t upload more than 650 words (or fewer than 250).
  • Not every school accepts the Common Application, so check every college on your list for its essay requirements.
  • Click here for the entire list of 2017 Common App essay prompts.

There are two new prompts this year. The Common Application wants to make sure every student finds a question that’s inspiring.

What do schools look for in a Common Application essay?

  • Your writing skills
  • Your ability to communicate your ideas
  • Your personality on the page. (What you care about, what makes you laugh, think, hope, dream, care, stay up at night. In other words, what’s meaningful to you and why.)
  • Often, a learning or growth experience

Common Application Essay Instructions

What do you want the readers of your application to know about you apart from courses, grades, and test scores? Choose the option that best helps you answer that question and write an essay of no more than 650 words, using the prompt to inspire and structure your response.

What should you know about these instructions? They’re open-ended on purpose. You can write about anything that’s important to you, that inspires you, that you care about—in other words, what helps makes you, you. Just make sure you know what your good qualities are, and what you want the schools to know about you.

Tip: If you’re not sure what your best qualities are, download my positive qualities worksheet, which will help you figure them out. Then you’re on your way.

Okay, ready? Here we go…

Common Application Essay Prompt #1:

Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.

Is this Prompt for You? Look at the Keywords:

how to write 2015 common app essay

Background — Identity — Interest — Talent — Meaningful — Incomplete without it.

Do these Keywords Apply to You? 

  • “Background, identity, interest, talent.” These words are meant to spark your imagination. Think about what’s shaped your life: Is it who you are…where you’re from…what you love…how you think…a hobby you just learned? You can write about almost anything as long as it’s important to the person you’ve grown to be.
  • “Meaningful” means that this experience has shaped you in a fundamental way—It has influenced your choices, outlook, perspective and/or goals.
  • Your application would be “incomplete without it.” You need to tell this story in order for people to fully understand you. You also haven’t told it anywhere else in your application.

Choose this Prompt IF:

1. This experience helped shape you in a positive way.
2. If you didn’t tell this story, the admissions committee wouldn’t fully understand you.
3. Your topic doesn’t fit any of the other prompts.

how to write 2013 common app essay

Pitfalls to Avoid:

  • It has to mean something.  Sure, you may like to swim or travel, but unless it’s a meaningful experience that helped define you in some way, it doesn’t qualify. You have to satisfy the keywords.
  • Don’t omit what you learned. Even though the prompt doesn’t specify it, make sure to include what you’ve learned or how you’ve grown from your experience. This is essential for a complete answer.
  • Don’t sound like anyone else. Choose an original topic. Definitely avoid writing about sports or mission trips—they’ve been written about so much most of them sound stale. It’s better to think about what else makes you stand out. If you’ve got the best recipe for sticky buns or like to hunt for fossils, and you can link that to who you are, that’s going to be a more original topic.

Examples of 2 Successful Essay Topics:

“Road Trip”

My student, Jeff, was the youngest of three brothers, all of whom were a lot older (one was in the Marine Corps and one was a teacher). Jeff was proud that the example his brothers set had helped him become responsible and mature, and he wanted to write about it. So he chose the summer they invited him on their cross-country trip, and the night they found themselves heading into a dangerous storm.

The two older brothers began arguing: One wanted to be safe and stop for the night and the other wanted to make it to their destination on time. Jeff recognized his brothers were at an impasse, so he checked the forecast and radar maps and figured out they could avoid the storm by taking a less direct route to their destination. When they stopped for gas, Jeff got out of the car and presented his solution. When they voiced their concerns, he calmly answered all of their questions. Eventually, his brothers agreed to continue to Denver using the longer route. When they got back in the car they asked Jeff to navigate.

By keeping a level head and finding the right way to communicate with his brothers, Jeff was able to facilitate a solution that satisfied everyone. He was proud that he helped lead them safely to their destination, and even more so that he lived up to the examples of responsibility and maturity that his brothers had taught him.

Why Does this College Essay Topic Succeed?

  •  All the keywords are addressed. Jeff couldn’t talk about his identity without writing about his family. The example his brothers set for him made him expect a lot of himself and become a responsible leader in many of his daily activities. It was central to who he was.
  • He learned from his experience. By being mature and thoughtful he found that he could make a positive difference in a difficult situation.

“Ballet Dancer”

Marina was such an accomplished ballet dancer that she studied with the prestigious Bolshoi ballet in New York. Everyone, including her family, assumed that she’d turn professional. Instead, she decided to become a nutritionist. Marina wrote about her love of ballet and how it exposed her to a hidden world of young dancers with eating disorders. Ballet led her to a new goal: helping dancers stay healthy.

Why Does this College Essay Topic Succeed?

  •  All the keywords are addressed. Marina couldn’t tell her story without writing about dance. It was central to her identity and her application would be incomplete without it.
  • She learned from her experience. Her perspective as a dancer showed her what she wanted to do with her future.

Example of a Poor Essay Topic:

Alex enjoyed driving his car. He liked to ride for hours listening to his favorite music and taking twists and turns he didn’t know, just see where he would end up. Sometimes he drove so far that he had to use his GPS to get home.

Why Does this College Essay Topic Fail?

  • The keywords are not addressed. This is a nice story, and probably would be interesting to read. But the student doesn’t indicate anywhere how or why it’s central to who he is or what his talents are.  If he didn’t write about this activity, no one would miss it.
  • There’s no learning or growing experience.

Is Common App essay prompt 1 a good choice for an original, memorable topic? Absolutely.

Everyone has a background, identity, talent or interest. Brainstorm. See if you can come up with one, two, or three answers to this question. Have fun! Be silly, serious, original, provocative. Make connections and see where they take you. You might just arrive at a wonderful, meaningful, and memorable Common Application essay personal statement.

Next time: How to write Common Application essay prompt #2.

Read the entire series:
How to Write Common App Prompt #1: Background, Talent, Identity, or Interest
How to Write Common App Prompt #2: The Lessons We Take From Obstacles
How to Write Common App Prompt #3: Challenged a Belief or Idea
How to Write Common App Prompt #4: A Problem You’ve Solved or Would Like to Solve
How to Write Common App Prompt #5: An Accomplishment, Event, or Realization
Coming Soon:
How to Write Common App Prompt #6: Topic, Idea or Concept that Makes You Lose Track of Time
How to Write Common App Prompt #7: Topic of Your Choice

Related links:
Huffington Post: The Common App Prompts Are Changing
The Common Application Announces 2017-2018 Essay Prompts

For the entire list of 2017 Common App essay prompts click here.
If you’re not familiar with the Common Application, go to their website. They also have a very helpful Facebook page.

sharon-epstein-college-essay-writing-and-interview-skills


Sharon Epstein is owner of First Impressions College Consulting in Redding, Connecticut. She is a Writers Guild Award-winner and two-time Emmy Award nominee. First Impressions College Consulting teaches students how to master interview skills, write killer resumes, and transform their goals, dreams and experiences into memorable college application essays. Our tutors are award-winning writers and published authors who work with students everywhere: in-person, by phone, video and email. Visit our website for more info. Connect on Google+, Pinterest and Twitter.

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Writing Term Papers—How to Turn a Messy First Draft into a Final Paper

Writing Term Papers—How to turn a messy draft into a final paperJoanna NovinsGuest blogger: Joanna Novins
Part 3 of the Series “Becoming Unstuck”

In my first two posts, Beating Term Paper Panic and Avoiding Verbal Gridlock, I promised I’d discuss how to develop an outline from a messy first draft and use it to transform your first draft into a finished paper.

There’s no law that says you must have an outline to write a draft. Indeed, you may find it easier to craft an outline after you’ve written your first draft

Like most students, you’ve probably had it drilled into you that before you sit down to write you must create an outline. But to return to my Legos metaphor, dumping and sorting often helps you build faster and more efficiently; dumping your ideas and sorting them afterwards can often help you write faster and more efficiently. It’s easier to see patterns and trends after you’ve gotten them all down on the page.

However, you do need an outline to write a paper. Your outline is the road map that will take your writing from draft to finished paper.

So, what’s the next step?

Group together the information that defines the topic of your paper. Papers, no matter what the topic, are a type of storytelling; think of this as your “scene setter” or your “once upon a time” paragraph. To use a simple example, if your paper was about Little Red Riding Hood, this would be the paragraph that explains who Red Riding Hood is.

Group together the information that explains the history, or background, affecting your topic. To continue the storytelling metaphor, think of this as the “back story” paragraph. Once Red Riding Hood is introduced, we need to understand what motivates her to go into the woods.

Group together the players, or elements, that are affected by, or have a stake in the topic. Who are the characters waiting in the woods, or the elements of the woods, that will affect Red Riding Hood’s journey?

Decide an “order of importance. When you group together the elements of your topic or story, the amount and type of information in each group should give you a sense of what order to place them in. You may find organizing your paper by most influential to least influential element works best, or you might find a chronology works best. Either way, choose the method that makes your “storytelling” easiest and clearest. (Editor’s note: Don’t be afraid of easy. If you’re doing something right, it should feel easy.)

If you’re struggling to make an idea clear, try breaking it down into more detailed parts.

  • A good rule of thumb is that a well-constructed paragraph contains five sentences: Your first sentence introduces the idea or concept you’re going to address in the paragraph, your next three provide evidence/facts/quotes/or arguments that reinforce the idea or concept. Your final sentence wraps up the idea and/or draws a conclusion. It may also introduce the transition to the next paragraph’s idea.
  • If your paragraph is too long, chances are your outline needs more categories. The more you separate out and simplify your ideas, the easier it will be to express them, and the clearer your writing will be. The story of Red Riding Hood works better if the wolf, the grandmother, and the woodcutter are each introduced separately rather than all at the same time.
  • If your paragraph is too short, you probably need more evidence to make your argument. Look for quotes, events, or other specific details that will support the argument you’ve made in the paragraph’s introductory sentence. If you can’t find any, it may be an indication that the idea or argument isn’t significant enough, or persuasive enough to fit into your paper.

Your topic “groupings” become your outline. Write them down. Your outline will serve as visual map of the structure of your paper.

Don’t forget to refer back to your original assignment. Make sure your outline incorporates all the topics and actions you’ve been asked to include.

Use your outline, the assignment, and any rubric you’ve been given as a checklist before you turn your paper in. Don’t forget to run a spell check and to Google any terms, titles, or authors’ names to make sure you’ve got the correct spelling and punctuation. Finally, read your paper out loud. It will help you catch missing words and errors a spell check will miss.

A Final Note

You probably know your outline should include an introductory paragraph and a concluding paragraph. But just because you list the introductory paragraph first, doesn’t mean you must write it first.

In my previous blog, I talked about “verbal gridlock.” Verbal gridlock is often caused by trying to get part of the paper “perfect.” Students are frequently told that a strong introductory paragraph is the most important part of a paper.

Strong introductions are important, but they’re often easier to write after you’ve completed the bulk of the paper. Unless you’re required to hand in a thesis statement in advance of your paper, you might find it easier not to write your introduction first.

Think of it this way; after you’ve recounted Red Riding Hood’s adventures, you’ll have a clearer sense of who she is and what impact her character and actions have had on the story. Not surprisingly, you’ll now have an easier time of writing a more in-depth introduction to her. And after you’ve written your introduction, you will probably find writing a conclusion comes more naturally.

Try writing your introduction and conclusion one after the other. Conclusions are essentially the companion piece to the introduction. For example, if the introduction discusses Red Riding Hood’s character and its impact on the story, the conclusion might discuss a moral, lesson learned from her character and behavior, or what might have happened had she behaved differently.

Now relax. You’ve got this.

Read the entire “Becoming Unstuck” series:
Writing Term Papers—6 Steps for Beating Term Paper Panic

Writing Term Papers–How to Avoid Verbal Gridlock

If you need help with your writing skills, First Impressions College Consulting can guide you through the writing process to make it easier and more effective. Gain confidence in your writing. Contact www.firstimpressionscollegeconsulting.com.

Joanna NovinsWith over two decades of writing experience for the Central Intelligence Agency and the commercial fiction market, multi-published author and writing consultant Joanna Novins understands the importance of hooking the reader with the first line. She also understands the importance of telling a great story, whether it’s about manufacturing solid propellant missiles, happily-ever-after, or marketing yourself or your work. She has extensive experience working with writers of differing skill levels, from senior intelligence analysts and published authors to aspiring authors and high school students. Joanna is a writing consultant for First Impressions College Consulting. You can reach her at www.joannanovins.com or www.firstimpressionscollegeconsulting.com

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Writing Term Papers—How to Avoid Verbal Gridlock

Writing Term Papers—How to avoid verbal gridlock

Joanna NovinsGuest blogger: Joanna Novins
Part 2 of the Series “Becoming Unstuck”

In my previous post, I wrote about the late-night call I’d gotten from a college student with whom I’ve worked in the past. The deadlines for several papers were looming and he was panicking.

“I don’t know how I’m going to get this done,” he wailed. “I don’t know where to start.”

“Send me what you’ve got,” I replied, having learned from experience that when students say they don’t know where to start, often what they really mean is they’ve started writing and gotten stuck.

Sure enough, my panicked student had run into verbal gridlock.

What’s verbal gridlock? It’s when you put all your ideas for an assignment into a single sentence or paragraph, leaving yourself no room to write.

Suppose, for example, a professor has asked you to write about your favorite dessert. You write, “I like rocky road ice cream cones.” Then you stare at the page wondering what else there is to say.

What you may not realize is that your single, concise sentence can be broken out into individual discussions:

  • Your affinity for chocolate (Do you like dark, milk-chocolate or white? And how do you feel about vanilla?)
  • Marshmallows (Just in ice cream, or raw or fire-roasted or packed in cookies? And how do you feel about Peeps?)
  • Fudge swirls
  • Nuts (Peanuts? Pecans? Walnuts, and if walnuts, wet or dry?)
  • Ice cream (Pure or with “stuff”? And does frozen yogurt really count as ice cream?)
  • What about cones vs. cups? (Not to mention the question, who makes the best rocky road ice cream?)

Worried that detail sounds like “filler?” It’s not; it’s your analysis of the subject. Using detail demonstrates that you’ve thought carefully about the question, that you understand all its aspects, and that you’ve evaluated each one. Indeed, you could dive deeper into this simple question about dessert preferences, discussing regional preferences (frozen custard, gelato, shaved ice), their historical origins, manufacturing processes, and chemical compositions.

The more specific details you add, the more you demonstrate your understanding and mastery of the subject. If you’re writing an academic paper, your understanding of the subject is what your professor wants to determine from your work. Were you paying attention in class, did you do the reading, did you read additional materials, do you “get” what he or she has been teaching? Never assume that your teacher knows that you understand the subject matter. Show it.

Verbal gridlock doesn’t only occur at the start of a paper. One student I worked with had a terrific beginning, but ran into trouble in the middle of her paper at a section where she really needed to do some tricky, in-depth analysis. Instead of working through that section, she kept starting the entire paper over. When she finally came to me she had three drafts, all stopped at the same place, and her writing at the beginning had become increasingly over-written and stale.

When you run into verbal gridlock in the middle of a paper, keep writing. Think of it like Legos. If you played with Legos as a child you probably started by dumping them out and then sorting them into piles based on color, shape or size. The sorted piles made it easier to see what you could build. Dumping and sorting also helped you build faster and more efficiently. Writing works the same way; it’s easier to see patterns and trends after you’ve dumped out all the ideas and information.

If you can’t write through verbal gridlock, write around it. A lot of students get stuck trying to write a perfect first draft. If you know you need a paragraph on a particular topic but you can’t figure out what to say, try using a trick lots of novelists use. Simply make a note, “Analysis of X goes here” and keep going. You may be surprised how well this technique works, but you’re basically reassuring the panicky voices in your head that you know something needs to go there and you’ll get back to it when you get the rest of the paper done.



Fun fact: Novelists often change fonts when they run into writer’s block. It’s amazing how little things can make your brain feel like you’re making a fresh start.

As I wrote in my previous blog, polishing comes later. You can edit and organize anything but a blank page. In my final post, I’ll discuss how to do just that—how to develop an outline from a messy first draft and how to use it to transform your first draft into a finished paper.

Read the entire “Becoming Unstuck” series:
Writing Term Papers—6 Steps for Beating Term Paper Panic
Writing Term Papers—How to Turn a Messy First Draft Into a Final Paper

If you need help with your writing skills, First Impressions College Consulting can guide you through the writing process to make it easier and more effective. Gain confidence in your writing. Contact www.firstimpressionscollegeconsulting.com.

Joanna NovinsWith over two decades of writing experience for the Central Intelligence Agency and the commercial fiction market, multi-published author and writing consultant Joanna Novins understands the importance of hooking the reader with the first line. She also understands the importance of telling a great story, whether it’s about manufacturing solid propellant missiles, happily-ever-after, or marketing yourself or your work. She has extensive experience working with writers of differing skill levels, from senior intelligence analysts and published authors to aspiring authors and high school students. Joanna is a writing consultant for First Impressions College Consulting. You can reach her at www.joannanovins.com or www.firstimpressionscollegeconsulting.com

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Writing Term Papers—Six Steps for Beating Deadline Panic

6 Steps for Beating Term Paper Panic

Joanna NovinsGuest blogger: Joanna Novins
Part 1 of the Series “Becoming Unstuck”

The other night I got a call from a college student with whom I’ve worked in the past. The deadlines for several papers were looming. “I don’t know how I’m going to get this done,” he said, his voice cracking with a mixture of panic and fatigue. “I don’t know where to start.”

“What can I do to help?” I asked, trying to calm him down.

“Do you have a time machine?” he muttered miserably.

While I couldn’t set the clock back so he’d have more time to work on his paper, after nearly thirty years of working as a professional writer and researcher, I could share some of the simple steps I’ve developed to help relieve deadline panic.

Step One:

Stop beating yourself up. Yes, you could have started earlier, yes, the clock is ticking, but making yourself feel worse about the situation isn’t going to help. Focus on the things you can do now. To fight deadline panic, you need to take both mental and physical control over your situation.

Step Two:

Read the assignment instructions again. While this may seem simplistic, reading the instructions to make sure you understand the parameters of the assignment is an important first step. All too often unfinished projects become like monsters in the closet, their dimensions growing larger and more frightening with each passing moment they’re kept locked in the dark. Take a close, careful look at what the professor is asking you to do. Chances are it’s not nearly as overwhelming as you imagine.

Step Three:

Can’t find your assignment? Clean up! Often when you allow work assignments to pile up, you also allow other things in your environment to pile up.  And while, yes you do need to start your project, it’s worth it to take 10 or 20 minutes to straighten up your room, desk top, and or backpack. Think of it as “administrative time.” File paperwork according to subject matter, class, or assignments.  Mark upcoming assignments and other deadlines on whatever calendar system you use—computer, paper, post it notes on the wall. Throw out papers you don’t need. You may be surprised how much calmer you feel when your workspace looks (and is) less chaotic.

Step Four:

Still can’t find it? Don’t understand it? Reach out to classmates or your instructor. Never hesitate to contact an instructor if you’re running into problems; you’ll have a far better chance of resolving them if you ask for help before the situation becomes a crisis than after you’ve failed to turn an assignment in. It may be embarrassing, but bear in mind that you’ve been given the assignment because your instructor wants you to learn the material, not learn to fail. (Note: Keep in mind that you’ll make a better impression on your professor if you can show what efforts you’ve made to resolve a problem, and possible solutions, rather than simply asking him or her to “fix it.”)

Step Five:

Break the assignment into manageable chunks. As you’re reading your assignment, pay close attention to the verbs your instructor has used. For example, are you being asked to describe, compare, and assess/analyze/or give your views on a subject?  These are three different actions. Tackle them separately.  Are you being asked to write about the impact of an event or issue? Define the event or issue first, lay out the history or background leading up to it, then describe the players and their concerns or conflicts. The more detailed and specific you are about breaking out the components of your subject matter, the easier you’ll find it is to write about the subject.

Step Six:

Write a messy first draft. The most important thing to do when you’re writing under a deadline is to get your ideas down on paper. Don’t worry about crafting the perfect introductory paragraph, whether you’re starting in the “right” place, or how the parts will fit together. Most importantly, don’t worry about whether what you’re writing is any good. All too often, what stymies the writing process is a desire to write a final draft rather than a first; I’ve seen plenty of students waste precious time rewriting the beginning of a paper or trying to polish an introductory paragraph. Polishing comes later. You can edit and organize anything but a blank page.

Stuck on the first paragraph? In the next segment of this series, I discuss how to avoid “verbal gridlock.” Finished your messy first draft and wondering what’s next? In the third and final post, I discuss developing and using an outline to transform your draft into a finished paper.

Read the entire “Becoming Unstuck” series:
Writing Term Papers—How to Avoid Verbal Gridlock
Writing Term Papers—How to Turn a Messy First Draft Into a Final Paper

If you need help with your writing skills, First Impressions College Consulting can guide you through the writing process to make it easier and more effective. Gain confidence in your writing. Contact www.firstimpressionscollegeconsulting.com.

Joanna NovinsWith over two decades of writing experience for the Central Intelligence Agency and the commercial fiction market, multi-published author and writing consultant Joanna Novins understands the importance of hooking the reader with the first line. She also understands the importance of telling a great story, whether it’s about manufacturing solid propellant missiles, happily-ever-after, or marketing yourself or your work. She has extensive experience working with writers of differing skill levels, from senior intelligence analysts and published authors to aspiring authors and high school students. Joanna is a writing consultant for First Impressions College Consulting. You can reach her at www.joannanovins.com or www.firstimpressionscollegeconsulting.com

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